10 Reasons Why Schools Can't Change.... And Why They Have To
A while back I wrote an article with a similar title - but that had only seven reasons. I've added another three and switched things around a bit as my thinking has moved on.
Schools should be potentiality accelerators. Instead, most are potentiality killers.
I’m not only talking about student potential which is being woefully underserved. Teachers and leaders the world over have their creativity and innovation stifled by a system that teaches to the test and privileges regulatory compliance to a set of limiting standards over the exploration of meaningful learning and growth. There are a number of reasons why we are stuck in this quagmire, unable to get out.
Ten Reasons Why Schools Can’t Change
There are ten main reasons why the education profession finds it so challenging to change, and none of them are particularly complex or surprising. However, education leaders need to consider these carefully, as countering them will be critical to effectively lead schools through the next phase in education’s development.
A too rigid curriculum that focuses on final assessment for higher education.
Higher education itself, expecting a narrowly-defined ‘proof of learning’ in the form of exam grades or GPA.
Resistance to change from teachers who worry about anarchy descending on their classrooms should they move to more flexible, student-centred learning models.
Ingrained bureaucracy across school systems, with a lot of vested interest in keeping the status quo.
Standardised instruction models that begin at teacher training college and are reinforced on the job.
No meaningful integration of technology to date: mainly because technology doesn’t naturally fit into a 250 year old system.
No well-structured and impactful professional development on how to integrate technology effectively into learning.
Parent and teacher worries about students having too much screen time.
School buildings that limit innovation because they were designed for a one-size-fits-all model.
An inspectorate designed around a narrow definition of academic excellence.
1. A curriculum that narrows to a point
In theory, primary schools can be more creative and experimental than secondary schools. This is because, for the most part, they’re not teaching to a set of exams. There are some primary schools that test, like the 11+ and Common Entrance in the UK, but on the whole there is less urgency towards teaching to a narrow set of exam criteria.
However, from KG through to age eighteen, the majority of schools follow narrow curriculum frameworks. From the EYFS in the UK, to Common Core in the US, through to A-Levels and SATs, teachers seem nervous of stepping outside the boundaries of what has been deemed ‘appropriate’ for teach age group. This is partly due to inspection frameworks and league tables, but it’s also easier for schools to monitor what teachers are doing in the classroom if they teach to a set plan.
Of course, the main reason we have a curriculum that narrows the older students get is…
2. …the endpoint of university entrance
We can in theory be as innovative as we like with younger students, but as soon as they hit the age of 14, they (and we) feel the pressure of terminal exams. As soon as students have to sit in a stuffy hall in May, June or November, scratching answers to largely useless questions on a piece of paper, our approach fits this endpoint. We teach to the test, which necessitates a rote-like approach to ‘getting through the syllabus’.
This trickles downwards, ensuring students have these skills as early as possible so the jump from the UK’s Key Stage 3 (from aged 11-14) to Key Stage 4 (14-16) isn’t too great. We are caught in a culture where we value the act of measurement itself rather than stopping and thinking about whether this constant testing is actually adding value to the child’s learning. We must all ask ourselves - who are we doing this for? When we can honestly answer that question, perhaps we can move on.
Universities will need to adjust anyway, as if they don't they risk becoming irrelevant far faster than conventional schools. I see a time in the not too distant future where businesses visit schools and students compete, Dragon's Den-style, for high profile apprenticeships where the employer, plus AI-curated and delivered learning content, trains the student as effectively as the university. For many subjects, how much longer does the university have?
3. Teachers who don’t want to rock the boat
Teachers are by nature creatures of habit. It’s a tough job, with so many moving parts, that once we have a system that broadly works for us we prefer not to change. This is because our routines are hard-won: after a few years we know both our strengths and limitations and work within them.
However, this style of teaching is one of the reasons why the system is failing. Most are bored with it, which leads to disengagement, poor behaviour, and teachers quitting the profession. Children generally misbehave for three reasons: either they are disinterested because the subject matter is irrelevant and /or the teaching is dull; because they don’t understand due to the level being pitched too high; or because it is too easy for them and they feel patronised. For most teachers, particularly if you also have exams to get through and Ofsted to keep happy, it follows that it’s best not to risk losing the class for the sake of some experiment in tech-enabled project-based learning.
The irony is that the longer we perpetuate this way of teaching, the more likely we are to lose the very thing we worked so hard to win. My belief is this will only get worse. We will see students becoming increasingly distracted and distractible, as they realise that they can get everything they need, and more, through online learning and AI. When the adult in the room is no longer the sole guardian of either the knowledge or means of dissemination, students may well begin voting with their feet and opting out of listening to us. At best, this means rooms full of empty eyes. At worst it will be full scale anarchy.
4. A bureaucratic system with lots of vested interest in keeping things as they are
There is a whole industry around education. From the textbook publishers to the teacher training providers and exam boards, there are a lot of people whose jobs rely on keeping the status quo.
Governments struggle to move at anything other than glacial pace. I recently spoke to Lord Jim Knight, former Labour Education Secretary, who is now Chair of COBIS and advisor to governments, schools and technology groups the world over. When I asked him how quickly we can move teacher training, to give trainees the tools to effectively deploy AI into their school, he listed off a long line of hoops the government will need to jump through in order to make any sort of wholesale change to the system as a whole. It won’t happen any time soon.
I think it will be up to individuals to make the change: standalone schools to work it out for themselves, providing staff, students and parents with the right tools and training. If we wait for system level change, those children who are now heading through our broken system will see no benefit. We have a moral obligation to do it ourselves, fitting as best we can around the current bureaucratic constraints, and quietly (or noisily) disrupting from within.
5. Teachers trained in the old paradigm
It ’s hard to break the mould when there is no obvious alternative. Teachers have been trained in broadly the same way for years. There have been minor advancements which offer trainees a broader pedagogical palette on which to draw (think Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie), but in general new teachers continue to enter the workforce with a narrow, subject-based, siloed approach to being ‘the English teacher’ or ‘the early years teacher’.
This must change. In the age of AI, when information is easy to get hold of and learning can be increasingly tailored to the individual, teacher training colleges will have to offer a different approach. Teachers need to soon be entering the workforce who know how to leverage AI in the most effective way, whether this be through their own planning and administration or through teaching students how to best use it.
We need to move from the ‘one hour of English followed by one hour of Maths’ towards multidisciplinary, project-based learning with teachers as coaches and facilitators. The term ‘guide on the side’ became rather hackneyed in the last decade, but perhaps now we will see it come to fruition. Teachers will increasingly see themselves as one more ‘node’ in an increasingly broad web of learning modalities, and will need to be trained in order to understand that from the start.
6. Ed tech which hasn’t moved the needle
Data projectors, interactive whiteboards, MOOCs, VLEs, iPads. With every ‘innovation’ brought into schools in the last twenty years, the education community held its breath, hopeful that this would be the one that finally made learning interesting and relevant.
Of course, none of them did, even though we still see them in our schools. The problem is that, at best, all they do is shift the focus of learning from a board at the front, to a screen on the desk. The learning paradigm doesn’t change.
Shows like BETT in the UK and ISTE in the US are filled with ed tech providers promising solutions to better ‘engage’ learners or create more efficient schools. I find them dispiriting events, and seldom attend. Stall after stall of patronisingly colourful apps with cartoon character avatars, as if bright colours and talking Furbies will make a difference to children’s development. They won’t.
The biggest challenge with tech integration is that we are attempting to push 21st Century technology into a 19th Century educational model, and expecting teachers trained in a 20th century paradigm to deploy it. There are too many conflicting parts, and none of them are working in harmony.
7. Ineffective professional development on how to use tech to improve learning
Back in 2011 I led the first 6th form college to go 1:1 with iPads. It was challenging as the iPad had only been released the year before and there was no training or systems to manage devices. We made a lot of mistakes, I wrote about them, my posts went viral, and I ended up speaking across the UK on what not to do. Apple appointed me into the first tranche of Professional Developers, and I worked with leadership teams and resellers on their device implementation plans. (By then I had worked out what to do.)
This isn’t unusual. Tech companies release innovative new devices and solutions and schools are left scrabbling around, trying to work out how to use them. Interactive whiteboards were never originally designed for schools: they were created for board rooms. Same with iPads: not specifically created for education, although Apple soon realised that pumping a lot of money into their education programme would get loyal users from a very early age. It worked, and the iPad is still the go-to device for most younger students, at least in my experience both as an educator and parent.
Because of a lack of professional development around tech implementation, what tends to happen is we introduce iPads, Chromebooks or the like, there’s an initial spark of enthusiasm, then teachers realise they’re more trouble than they’re worth (booking them out, wifi problems and so on), so they end up gathering dust in a trolley, running out of charge, or (at worst) breaking or going missing.
8. Parents who don’t want more screen time for their children
Generally speaking, parents don’t want their children to have any more screen time than they already do. This is fair enough: I am one of those parents. My son’s most recent school asked every student to have an iPad. This wasn’t a problem for us as we already had a couple. However, when they started to give him access to interactive maths games that I saw little educational value in, that were highly addictive and caused problems at home, I wasn’t impressed.
It’s too easy to dish out these adaptive, gamified experiences: it makes for easy homework as learning doesn’t need to be marked. Parents aren’t stupid: they know when schools are using tech as a shortcut and time saver.
However, what we will find, if we get this right, is that AI will actually reduce screen time - because when we are using a screen we are learning and working so much faster, and with so much more engagement, that we can spend more time looking up, out, and at one another.
9. Boxes filled with boxes
The physical design of schools has not radically changed since formal education began. We’ve experimented (and largely failed) with plaza learning, typified in the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme in the early years of the first Blair administration. Whilst laudable in its aims, it was too far ahead of its time, bringing in open plan spaces and expecting teachers who had never before experienced this new way of working. It failed because teachers weren’t prepared and had no idea how to use these shared spaces. They reverted to type, with the male geography teacher with the loudest voice drowning out every other teacher in the space. Apologies for the stereotype but I have first hand experience of exactly that.
The strategy was based on what UK politicians and school architects had seen in visits to schools like Hellerup and Orestadt Gymnasium in Copenhagen, Denmark. These innovative, light and spacious designs seemed to herald an entirely new way of teaching and learning, creating mixed use spaces that allowed for students to engage in a mixture of self-paced learning and small group work guided by their teachers.
However, for schools in the UK, nothing about their pedagogy had changed to fit these new buildings. Perhaps politicians and architects had believed that function would follow form, rather than the other way around: that teachers would naturally adapt their practice to fit the space. This didn’t happen, and many plaza learning schools were retrofitted with classrooms at great expense.
That said, it feels like we are fast approaching the right time to revisit this approach. Perhaps not to the extreme of plaza learning, but certainly to reassess how we design schools to fit new learning modalities. If students can access the information they need, curated in the way that best suits their level and learning style, then the ‘one to many’ model - with one teacher instructing many students at one time - will no longer be fit for purpose. And if that is the case, then the idea of the conventional classroom ceases to make sense (if it ever made sense in the first place).
Classrooms are the classic example of form following function: their size and shape (rectangles of between 40m2 and 50m2 that fit between 20 to 30 students) are ideally suited to the one teacher delivery model. However, if we no longer need that model, we no longer need that shape of room. We are better off designing schools with a mixture of learning spaces that suit different types of teacher- and tech-supported learning: larger open plan learning spaces, group rooms for teacher led mentorship, cubbyholes for silent solo work, and soundproof pods for pair and small group work.
Outdoor learning should also factor large in how we design these spaces: in most parts of the world having a mixture of fully open and covered spaces will allow for an extension to indoors space and give students flexibility for where they wish to learn. Even when it’s chilly you can put on your coat. As Alfred Wainwright once rightly said - ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.’
10. A one size fits all (or none) inspection regime
In addition to the terminal exam and university entrance pressure, schools are faced with the added stress of inspection compliance. When, like a Premier League football manager, you’re largely measured on your last set of results, Principals are going to play it safe and do nothing that might, even in the short term, impact on exam grades. In addition, many inspectors struggle to understand seemingly looser, more project-based pedagogies, preferring instead seeing students in rows facing forward. This is one of the reasons Steiner schools often receive low Ofsted ratings: inspectors don’t understand them.
There’s a place for working in silence: not every moment of a school day should be filled with collaboration and noise. We all need time to think and to plan, before sharing our ideas with others. But if we allow the inspection tail to wag the school dog, it is hard for us to know how we can step out of this paradigm and into another. Schools will need to be brave and push ahead with what they know is best for their students, taking any criticism from the established order as they do so. This is the only way change can happen.
Now we’ve defined the problems, we need to discover how to take our schools through a process to provide meaningful and long lasting change. Will this upend the entire education system and herald in a new dawn? That’s up to us.
We could remain passively acceptant of the way things are, shrug and say ‘I can’t change an entire system so what’s the point?’
Or, we can do what Gandhi did. Or Martin Luther. Or his namesake, Martin Luther King. Or any one of a number of revolutionaries who realised they had to start somewhere, that no one was going to do it for them, and that they had to stop talking and start acting.
I’ll shortly share some ideas as to how we can do just that.